Much Ado and the silence of Hero

I’ve watched a lot of Much Ado About Nothing. It’s my favorite Shakespeare comedy, thanks entirely to the characters of Beatrice and Benedick and their passionate-enemies-turned-passionate-lovers story. Their witty, slightly melancholy banter laid the groundwork for Pride and Prejudice and a host of lesser romantic comedies, and it’s largely why the play gets produced and performed again and again — from Joss Whedon’s celebrity-cool Los Angeles and the BBC’s incestuous local TV station and Kenneth Branagh’s ye olde Italia to countless colleges and community theaters across the land, and most recently on the rain-soaked plains of Central Park.

For me and, I suspect, for a lot of women and feminists and fans of the best aspects of romantic comedies, Much Ado’s appeal also comes from the fact that Beatrice takes very little shit from anyone, ever. She ends the play married, yes, but defining her own terms for that marriage. She gets to end the play as equal as any of Shakespeare’s women ever get to be to their romantic partners, and more equal than most women in literature written by men get to be. She gets to end the play speaking, and perhaps even more importantly, being heard.

So Beatrice and her fate are solid.  But that leaves us with Hero, the cautionary anti-Beatrice. Whose silence gets harder and harder to ignore every time I see the play.

Hero, the ironically-named plot device masquerading as a main character, barely gets to say anything for the first half of the play. She has one line in the first act, and six more in the second, according to Open Source Shakespeare.

That only gets slightly better as the play goes on and things really start happening to Hero. Beatrice gets to speak on 106 separate occasions in Much Ado. Benedick has 134 such opportunities to speak, and Claudio 125. Hero gets 44.

This isn’t a matter of a late-arriving character. Hero is onstage from the very beginning of Much Ado, but mute until midway through the action – which, to be clear, mostly revolves around her body. In those first two acts and seven lines for Hero, the plot concerns: who gets to marry Hero, and how that man will woo her (by letting his boss pretend to be him – okaaaaay), and how that man will ask Hero’s father for permission to marry her. Oh, and how that man’s boss’s brother will try to spoil this (frankly incredibly stupid) plot and destroy Hero’s reputation, just to get back at his brother. All of this happens to Hero in just the first two acts of Much Ado’s five, and she gets to say very, very little about it.

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-“I think my character was just … raped.”

-“No. No no no, that’s never happened to me. You must have pressed the wrong button.”

Amy Schumer’s perfect parody of Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom and Good Women Existing to Support Great Men quite rightly got linked pretty much everywhere, but this is even better. Schumer takes on the military rape epidemic, victim-blaming and misogynist video game culture, all in three minutes or less!

Arrow: The Surprisingly Feminist Anti-Batman

I’m beyond sick of superheroes, and Batman generally bores me to tears, so I can’t quite explain how I came to start enjoying Arrow, the CW’s TV version of the Batman-esque Green Arrow character. (Broody billionaire with a playboy persona? Check. Parentally-inflected vigilante quest for Vengeance and/or Justice, circle all that apply? Check. Humorless-lawyer childhood sweetheart who sees the world in black and white, and who’s played by a willowy, brunette Katie? Yep, that too.) Then you add the CW’s Abercrombie-model definitions of attractiveness and required teen angst (the main character’s sister is in high school but somehow runs a bar, at which she employs her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend? Whatever you say, show!), and Arrow should be a forgettable mess.

And the first season kind of was. But I started watching the second season, after a whole bunch of TV critics and bloggers gave Arrow a Most Improved Series trophy, and I have to say – it’s a blast. Here’s why:

-Its pacing is insane. Arrow hurtles towards all kinds of reveals and showdowns that I’d expect other shows to spend a full season carefully, lovingly arranging. (Cf. this week’s episode - spoilers, obviously.) I think this is most of why Arrow overcomes my superhero fatigue - yeah, it has all those tiresomely quirky, poorly-motivated villains of the week, but it regularly spends as little time as necessary on them in favor of setting up its season-long arc and having its main characters interact.

-It’s surprisingly, if spottily, feminist. Arrow hasn’t been kind to all of its female characters; there’s a lady in the refrigerator of this season’s supervillain, and you have to pity poor childhood sweetheart Laurel, who’s gotten to bounce between self-righteousness, bitterness, depression and now (sigh) pill addiction and alcoholism. (The writers apparently attended a Pills: Instant!Characterization workshop with the Nashville writers.) But Arrow has also created some super-compelling women, from the wonderfully smart yet well-adjusted Felicity Smoak, who gets to be the show’s conscience as well as its main voice of sanity and humor, to Laurel’s sister Sara, who survived the island with main character Oliver and gets to be a vigilante in her own right.

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Catching up on The Newsroom: Two solutions to the Jerry Dantana problem

It took me practically all season, but I am now caught up on The Newsroom. And I’ll reserve judgment on the two-part season finale until part two airs (except to say that I am really quite tired of Sorkin’s humorless, righteous heroes protesting how “good” they are to the women who Done Them Wrong), but let’s talk a little bit about Genoa and the season-long clusterfuck of a framing device. Because it was doomed from the beginning, but it was only in the last two episodes that I pinpointed why, exactly, I had more problems with it than just the usual objections to flashforwards and how they undercut dramatic tension.

The season-long Genoa flashforward was a particularly unfortunate choice for The Newsroom, which already struggles to make us care about the stakes of its near-past setting. We already know the outcome of pretty much every story that Will McAvoy & Co. cover, because the real press already got there – but with Genoa Sorkin had the (good) idea to let us see how his fictitious journalists cover a fictitious story, freeing them (in theory) from the boundaries of a pre-determined outcome and giving them an opportunity to be real characters, instead of Real Doll versions of TV journalists. So of course he had to undercut them, and himself, right from the start, by telegraphing the outcome to the viewers and creating the same curious lack of dramatic tension that the show has when it handles Benghazi or the 2012 elections.  

And then there’s Jerry Dantana, the newcomer who was created out of whole cloth to come into our cozy nest of bumbling heroes, to lead them astray out of righteousness before actively doing bad things to them, and then to disappear at the end of this season. I was willing to give him, and Sorkin, the benefit of the doubt – right up until the scene where Sorkin shows him manipulating the tape of the interview. That doesn’t work. There are two other ways it could have, though:

1) Remove that scene and the flashforward framing device, and it works. Dantana as the outside villain is still clumsy but more effective – he shows up, he’s smart, he’s intense, and he’s not less righteous than the characters we know and love to loathe. Maybe he even gets in on the office romantic polygon for kicks and authenticity! We the viewers don’t realize until Mac does that the tape was manipulated, and we the viewers share the heroes’ growing unease after the story airs, and then their eventual horror at having been played into airing a false report of military war crimes. Dantana otherwise isn’t a cackling, sneering villain – he’s an abrasive, savvy newcomer who fits in with the News Night clan.  And when Mac wonders to Don whether or not she should trust his instincts, it’s a genuine dramatic moment and a genuine character moment, instead of an obvious case of the Writer Knowing All and dumping buckets of dramatic irony onto his characters’ heads.

OR – and I think this would have been even more interesting —

2) Jim did it. No Dantana necessary. Give the storyline to an existing and (supposedly) sympathetic character, someone we’re already invested in. Someone Sorkin has portrayed as a hero, as the goodest of good guys. Then the speeches about chemical weapons on civilians and military torture have the ring of conviction, coming from someone we know and are inclined to think of as being on the side of righteousness. Slowly build over the season to show his conviction overtaking his judgment, to the point where, when we see him falsify the interview, it’s inevitable and horrifying and earned, dramatic character development, instead of mechanical plot development. I think Jim would have been an especially good candidate for this storyline given his role as the scolding schoolmarm to Maggie – since their failed flirtation has apparently sent her down the rabbit hole to alcoholism and one-night stands and professional screw-ups and Africa-inspired haircuts (all of which Jim has noted and scolded her for), wouldn’t it have been an interesting parallel to watch him try to recover from the almost-affair by throwing himself into his work (without the Romney bus), and then screwing up to a much greater degree?

Anyway. I have liked some of the set pieces more this season. When Sorkin gets a good round robin of signature fast-paced workplace dialogue going, he’s hard to ignore. The women, though. Did we really need to see not one but two ladies, two episodes in a row, getting so emotional they had to punch the men who wronged them? You can just see Sorkin shaking his head: “Bitches be crazy, amirite? And bad drivers, Mac!” And poor Hope Davis, whose character has gone through about four different personalities in the span of just about that many episodes, got to go from Mary Jane Watson to a painfully on-the-nose “Lady Macbeth” in her last two incarnations. Did Will even break up with her? Because Jeff Daniels delivered that line with all the mild sarcasm of someone joking with his wife that he’d divorce her for finishing the milk and not picking any more up.

newyorker:

Here’s a look at business advertisements from the magazine’s pages over the last 80 years: http://nyr.kr/144UUG6

"Wife vacation plan … just for the little woman."

newyorker:

Here’s a look at business advertisements from the magazine’s pages over the last 80 years: http://nyr.kr/144UUG6

"Wife vacation plan … just for the little woman."

(Source: newyorker.com)

"

There are no Jack Kerouacs or Holden Caulfields for girls. Literary girls don’t take road-trips to find themselves; they take trips to find men.

"Great" books, as defined by the Western canon, didn’t contain female protagonists I could admire. In fact, they barely contained female protagonists at all.

"

It’s Frustratingly Rare to Find a Novel About Women That’s Not About Love - Kelsey McKinney - The Atlantic (via oditor)

I have a lot of problems with the arguments in this essay (to pick one, I don’t particularly like Jane Eyre, but claiming that its protagonist has “no story of solitary self-discovery” makes me think you skipped the whole second half of the book). But my main objections are: Anne Shirley. Emily Starr. Laura Ingalls. Scout Finch. Kit Tyler. Turtle Wexler. Dicey Tillerman. Lucy Pevensie and Jill Pole and Polly Plummer. Many others I’m forgetting right now. You can keep your Jack Kerouacs and whiny Holden Caulfields- I had plenty of literary female protagonists to admire growing up.

(via literarynerd)

Elementary, Redux: The Irene Adler Success Story

Realizing as I watch a rerun - and I can’t think of the last time I watched a rerun besides this show and sometimes The Good Wife - that I owe Elementary an apology. Or at least, I’m very glad I kept watching after almost writing it off this fall. The final string of episodes, especially, were delightful and surprising and almost devoid of the dull procedural-itis that was such an initial problem for me. And in contrast to the first half of its season, when none of my friends really paid attention to it, Elementary's finale sparked several conversations and debates and “did you see that?” exchanges that I, obsessive television watcher that I am, didn't even have to initiate.

I especially loved what the show did with Irene. (Spoilers…)

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Orphan Black: More than just the (amazing) lead actress

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BBC America’s Orphan Black is deservedly having a moment, mostly focused on its (equally deserving) star, Tatiana Maslany. She should indeed win all the awards. But while her performances as several genetically identical but very distinct women who realize that they’re clones make the show, Orphan Black has done a lot to be worthy of those performances. Its writing is sharp and funny, its supporting characters are great and diverse and include Max Headroom playing an evil scientist, and while its pacing is unusually patient and sometimes even languid for a tightly-plotted serial drama, it has a way with a wicked payoff.* But what I love most about Orphan Black is its quiet and under-the-radar reversal of the gender norms I expect from pretty much any Critic-Appointed Serious Television Drama, especially those without some reference to women in the title.

Consider how I could generally describe the series’ first few episodes:

A young con artist, stumbling upon a conspiracy involving a serial killer and a multinational corporation’s secret scientific experiments, looks for answers by impersonating a cop and tries to protect friends and loved ones.

If I read that about a buzzy new television show (or movie), I’d automatically assume the con artist is a man, a Jesse Eisenberg or a Joseph Gordon-Levitt, wouldn’t you? Maybe he’ll have a female partner or boss at the police station, almost definitely he’ll have a female love interest and family members to protect, but his role and that of his main antagonists will be assuredly male. Orphan Black gleefully upends all of those assumptions. Its main character is a woman, and then the clones that become the other main characters are women. Part of this is casting and obviously the story’s setup – if you make your main character both a woman and a clone, you’re going to have lots of women on screen – but it’s remarkable how surrounded by other women those clones are.  Women are their friends, enemies, coworkers, lovers, mothers and children – and all of those relationships are important to the plot and to the show.

And yet men aren’t absent from or unimportant to Orphan Black. I adore Bunheads and its near-total focus on women navigating the world and their relationships with each other, but Orphan Black is a quietly more sophisticated show, because it also has an array of interesting and fully-fleshed-out male characters. They’re just the supporting characters that in many other ambitious television series would be the designated female roles: the concerned sibling (Felix), the suspicious partner (Art), the crazy ex (Vic), the kvetching spouse (Donnie) and the hot but dangerous femme fatale (homme fatal?), who possibly knows more than he’s letting on (Paul).

Orphan Black isn’t one of those designated lady-targeting ensemble soaps like Scandal or Nashville; or one of those prestigious Shows for Women, like Girls or The Good Wife; and it’s not trying to be Bunheads, with men reduced to the occasional walk-on part. I enjoy (or in the case of Girls, admire) all of those shows; I think The Good Wife is one of the smartest and most sophisticated shows, for Women or not, directly addressing gender politics and norms and realities. But its title and its approach mean that its central questions, like those of Girls and Sex and the City and Bunheads, are largely asked through the lens of What It Means To Be a Woman. It’s a totally valid and worthwhile question (and one that I, certainly, care about finding some answers to), but it’s also a limiting one.

Orphan Black asks that question, too – maternal instincts and the clones’ fertility, or lack thereof, are recurring themes – but it gets to do more. It gets to make “woman” the default norm. It gets to focus on What It Means To Be a Person. That’s traditionally a question we expect and allow only male-dominated shows to ask, because straight white man is the generally accepted standard for “everyone.” By asking that question, Orphan Black basically gets to be a gender-switched Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Newsroom (sigh), with clones.

This is more than just passing the Bechdel test with flying colors; this is inverting it so much that if too many series (ha) took Orphan Black’s lead, we’d need an equivalent test to determine if men get enough quality screen time. This is demonstrating that good stories are good stories, regardless of the gender of the main character.

And gender isn’t the only area where Orphan Black quietly wins at diversity. Also fantastic: the matter-of-fact, quiet yet deliberate depiction of not one but two! Two! Gay characters. Neither has to announce or overexplain their sexuality, and both get as much on-screen action as the straight characters. This show does so well with avoiding tokenism. It is a largely white show among the main characters, given that about 75% of the main characters are played by Maslany, but it’s notable that two of the main supporting characters, Art and Vic, are of color. And in what again feels like a deliberate choice, the series consistently casts racially diverse extras and guest characters, from soccer-mom Allison’s neighbors and adopted children to Sarah’s birth mother.

So I’m all for the Maslany Emmy talk. I just hope that the groundswell of attention she’s getting brings more focus to the show and the other, even more surprising, ways it excels.

*Spoilers: I love that in the first five episodes, main character Sarah saw her cop clone Beth kill herself, took over Beth’s life, fooled Beth’s coworkers and boyfriend, lulled me as a viewer into thinking that the police station and its procedural flavor would be part of the show’s structure — only to have Sarah quit the force and get caught by the boyfriend, halfway through the series. And the writers knew exactly where to go from there.

The Pretty One: “Something for the Ladies.”

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So this was irritating. Last night I saw The Pretty One, Jenée LaMarque’s California version of Amélie (sweet, funny, a feature-length Anthropologie commercial; not the irritating part). The screening, at the Tribeca Film Festival, was followed by a Q&A (also not the irritating part), with the (pregnant) writer-director, the star (Zoe Kazan), many of the other cast members, a handful of producers and other crew members, including the costume designer. Kazan, in heels and a Heidi coronet-braid, ran the microphone back and forth down the conga line of cast and crew to make sure everyone could answer audience questions.

Also not the irritating part: Of the impressive dozen-person lineup on stage, about half of them, including the main creative types and at least some of the money types, were women. The film was about a woman, trying to figure out this whole life/family/romance/career/friendship thing. (Note where “romance” came in that list - central but not exclusive or even primary.) The Tribeca employee moderating the event and asking the bulk of the questions was a woman.

This was the irritating part: When the Tribeca moderator eventually asked a question about the romance in the film, she felt the need to excuse it, or excuse her asking of it, or something: “It’s something for the ladies,” she added. Right. The romance. Something for us ladies, because the rest of the film about figuring out how to be a sister and a daughter and a friend and a twin who may or may not be “the pretty one” obviously wasn’t “for the ladies.” The lady writer-director, lady star playing a lady main character, lady producer and lady costume designer weren’t there for the ladies and hadn’t said anything up to that point that could be “for the ladies.”

I’m being harsh. I’m sure it was just filler talk, one of those things you say when you’re on stage with a number of semi-famous and/or accomplished people and nervous about sounding smart with them. But it was still pretty depressing. Romance is only the province of “the ladies,” really? And apparently you can make an entire movie about what it actually means to be a lady, with ladies in front of and behind the camera, but unless it has a romantic subplot, none of it is actually going to be for, about or by us.

The Invisible War

“Those cases weren’t given to women [investigators]. … We were too sympathetic.”

The Invisible War is one of those documentaries that are hard to decide to sit down and watch. It’s about rape in the military, and systematic coverups of rape in the military. It has lots of women facing the camera and telling horrific stories, and sometimes crying, and quietly talking about their depression and their post-traumatic stress and their suicide attempts.

It’s full of infuriating details: more than one woman says that when she went to her commanding officer and reported an attack, she was charged with adultery – not because she was married, but because her rapist was.

One thing that I thought director Kirby Dick did especially well was defining the crimes in his film as violence, human-on-human brutality, disassociated from any relationship to consensual sex. The film is largely framed by the story of Kori Cioca, a Coast Guard veteran whose attacker dislocated her jaw before he raped her. Years later, Cioca waits in vain for the Veterans Affairs office to respond to her claim and fund surgery to treat her. Her story makes it more difficult to sweep the issues away as just a rape problem, just a woman problem, just a sex problem – it’s none of those. One U.S. military officer brutally attacked another, resulting in a lifetime of physical problems, and the U.S. military responded by punishing the victim.

For all of its justified outrage, The Invisible War is effectively low-key – it doesn’t try too hard to tug at your heartstrings, it doesn’t embellish its interviews with swelling music. There are moments of humor, if usually of the bleak variety. (The military’s victim-blaming “prevention” ads, which warned women not to walk around bases without a buddy, got disbelieving laughs at my screening.) It’s a sad and angry film, but not an unrelentingly grim one.

I also saw watched the Oscar-nominated documentary in one of the best possible environments: with an audience in New York, with a panel discussion afterwards, including the director and Jessica Hinves, one of the survivors interviewed in the film. She was funny and cheerful and poised, and quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. when an audience member asked if she ever “thought about taking justice into [her] own hands.” The panel discussion was a reassuring end to the movie in some ways – we the audience could have a cathartic moment, applauding the survivors and expressing our outrage to people we knew shared that outrage. I’m glad I saw The Invisible War that way, and that I saw it at all – I’m not sure I would have picked it out to watch at home, on my own, as a break at the end of the workday or over the weekend. But it is very, very worth seeing.